explainer

An "epidemic" or just tragic accidents? Why 'selfie deaths' are sparking social panic.

Sydney Monfries ought to be graduating from university this month, one step closer to her dream of a career in journalism. Instead, the 20-year-old US woman’s bachelor degree will be awarded posthumously, delivered to her grieving family.

Monfries, a student at New York’s Fordham University, died hours after falling 12 metres in the stairwell of the campus’ clocktower at 3:20am on April 14. According to local authorities, she and a group of friends were climbing the off-limits building to take photographs of the city skyline, when she fell through an opening on one of the landings.

That same week, another US college student – Andrea Norton – slipped and fell to her death from a rocky outcrop in Arkansas’ Ozarks Mountains while taking a photograph with friends.

Later in April, two Russian teens reportedly died in similar circumstances. According to The Sun, Alyona Anopina, 14, and Polina Kavaleva, 13, were found dead within 24 hours of each other, after each “trying to take the perfect selfies”.

Headlines painted each piece of news with the same brush: ‘selfie death‘, a thoroughly modern brand of tragedy, in which someone dies in pursuit of a photo.

Selfie deaths: a modern “epidemic”?

‘Selfie death’, also referred to by some as “killfies” or even “selficide”, has become a popular narrative for news media over the past few years.

From Meenakshi Moorthy and Vishnu Viswanath, the travel bloggers who fell to their deaths in Yosemite National Park in 2018 after setting up a clifftop photoshoot, to the 26-year-old Filipino tourist who died taking a selfie at a Hong Kong waterfall this year, these types of devastating accidents make national headlines when others would barely make local ones.

One of Moorthy and Visnath’s photos…

 

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Even researchers are paying attention.

A team associated with All India Institute of Medical Sciences tracked selfie-related deaths between October 2011 to November 2017 and clocked the final number at 259 – half of which occurred in India. They noted that the true number is likely to be higher, as many would go unreported. According to their findings, which were published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, the leading cause of selfie deaths were drowning, incidents involving transportation (eg. taking a selfie in front of an oncoming train) and falling from heights.

“The selfie deaths have become a major public health problem,” Agam Bansal, the study’s lead author, told The Washington Post. That sentiment was echoed last month by US publication Outside labelled these fatalities as “an epidemic”.

But there are those who argue that’s an exaggeration, even hysteria. It’s true that 259 deaths worldwide over the course of six years – while each undeniably awful – seems relatively low compared to the social panic the topic seems to generate.

The truth behind our fascination with selfie deaths.

The thing about these stories that keeps them in the headlines, is that they speak to something much larger.

Dr Brady Robards, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Monash University argues that they anchor into our concerns about the influence of social media, on young people in particular.

“We’re always concerned about what young people are doing with new technologies; that was the case with the advent of the radio and how much time we let kids watch television,” he told Mamamia. “The selfie falls into this ‘young people’ practice.”

 

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For millions, it’s become a part of everyday life. Technology – smart phones, front-facing cameras – facilitate it, but there’s also a cultural element. A desire to connect, for example.

“There’s also this idea of us being present in digital spaces, in our digital culture, and being able to take a selfie places us in the world,” Dr Robards said. “Instead of travel photos of landmarks and things, we can actually be in the photos ourselves. So this gives photographs a different kind of significance and importance to us.”

But important enough to put ourselves in danger?

“Every now and then we see these horrible examples examples of people losing their lives and hurting themselves. Of course that’s terrible. They are exceptions though, they’re extreme,” he said. “I’m always kind of cautious about balancing those extreme, spectacular examples with most people’s everyday selfie use, which is pretty mundane.”

In fact, Dr Robards argues that the selfie is not to blame for the fatalities – in the majority of cases, it’s a result of risk-taking behaviour. After all, it would be callous to suggest that the victims of these tragedies consciously weighed their life against a single photograph and chose the latter.

“These deaths are products of a much bigger constellation of people’s risk taking practices; whether it’s around driving or dangerous sports or all kinds of things,” Dr Robards said. “So I don’t I don’t think that cell phones cause people to do this, but I think it’s part of a bigger culture of risk-taking and pushing boundaries.”

Morthy, one of the travel bloggers who died in Yosemite, knew of the dangers. Just months before her fatal fall, she warned her followers of just that: “A lot of us including yours truly is a fan of daredevilry attempts of standing at the edge of cliffs and skyscrapers, but did you know that wind gusts can be FATAL?” she wrote.

Her final say on the matter now serves as a haunting reminder:

“Is our life just worth one photo?”

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